1970s, Comedy, Crime/Detective

The Sting (1973)

.

TheSting01

Director: George Roy Hill
Screenwriter: David S. Ward

By Roderick Heath

Despite winning the 1973 Best Picture Oscar and proving one of the most popular movies ever made, The Sting rarely gets much serious appreciation. Today’s popular hits can very often prove tomorrow’s deflated gasbags, but The Sting retains a kind of perfection, an ingenious and multileveled engine, a film with a narrative that takes the matter at its heart, the arts of deception and dishonesty, and also makes them the framework for its story, with a deft guile and cocksure vigour almost vanished now from popular cinema. The Sting began life when the struggling screenwriter David S. Ward, doing some research into pickpockets, read some books about the classic methods and characters of confidence tricksters, particularly David Maurer’s 1940 book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, about the brothers and partners in grifting, Fred and Charley Gondorff, whose last name Ward appended to one of his fictional antiheroes. Ward later had to fend off a lawsuit from Maurer, claiming that he plagiarised the book. The Sting eventually reunited the two biggest male movie stars of the moment, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill, after the trio had scored a huge hit with 1969’s semi-satiric, counterculture-infused western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

TheSting02

The Sting pulled off the ultimate trick of beating out William Friedkin’s horror juggernaut The Exorcist for the Oscar after giving it a run for its money at the box office. Of course, The Sting’s upbeat, retro fun was easier for the Academy to embrace than Friedkin’s garish and nightmarish experience, as Hill’s film exemplified old-fashioned Hollywood values in a New Hollywood context, packing major star power together with a sure-fire script. The Sting also rode a wave of nostalgic longing for bygone days, expertly coaxed by the score’s use of ragtime tunes by the near-forgotten Scott Joplin, whose works, as arranged and recorded by Marvin Hamlisch, enjoyed sudden new popularity on the back of the soundtrack’s success. Joplin’s music, most famously “The Entertainer,” used as the film’s main title music and recurring throughout, but perhaps more crucially in terms of the film’s aesthetic the melancholy piano theme “Solace,” punctuates the repeating vision of its heroes as solitary or at drift in the streets of 1936 Joliet and Chicago, dogged by their own strange knowledge of the world and themselves, both a part of but also distinct from the society whose homeless and destitute rejects still litter the sidewalks in the waning Depression.

TheSting03

The appeal for the Academy might well have been something more subtle too, in the way Ward’s story offered a sharp metaphor for being a Hollywood player, depicting talented people obliged to live in a netherworld in putting their abilities on the line. The con men of The Sting are directors, writers, and above all dynamic actors who put on their shows for the highest stakes, always a twist of chance away from beggardom, imprisonment, starvation or riches and their own kind of hermetic celebrity, needing only a performance so convincing it erases the line between fakery and authenticity, a show of brilliant wit and world-reordering sleight-of-hand. Redford’s character Johnny Hooker, first glimpsed expertly bilking a mark of a bundle of cash in league with his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), is a young man with a true gift for his unusual art, but a need for father figures and a compulsion to try and persuade luck the same way he persuades people, a need he fulfils through gambling, at which he always ultimately loses. Despite being young and good-looking he’s so much an interloper and a habitual screw-up he can’t even keep his stripper girlfriend Crystal (Sally Kirland) after blowing his first big score on a game of roulette, and he spends much of the rest of the film running, often literally, from men who want to kill him and from his own shiftless, exile-on-main street lack of identity.

TheSting04

Film and plot gain momentum from the opening moments where Hill surveys human wreckage on the streets of Joliet, one of many, prickling remembrances that the story unfolds in a time of hardship: the characters on screen have been created by their circumstance. The initial spur of the story is deeply wound into the time and place: a numbers operation, part of the larger crime syndicate run by Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), making fortunes off ordinary people making their own paltry plays for sudden, unlikely enrichment. The Joliet operation is run by Granger (Ed Bakey), who reports relatively weak profits and a slow count owing to a brief shutdown of the operations in town by a mayor on one of his tough-on-crime kicks, gives the week’s take of $10,000 to one of his men, Mottola (James J. Sloyan), to carry up to Chicago. Just after setting off, he glimpses an aging black man who’s been stabbed and robbed by a fleeing thief: Mottola declines to take down the thief but another bystander does and gets the money back. The old man explains he was heading to make a payoff to some loan sharks he owes money to, and begs Mottola to carry the money there for him. The third man advises him to keep his money wrapped in his handkerchief and stuffed down his pants in case the thief and any pals are lying in wait for him. Mottola takes the old man’s bundle with a kindly assurance to help him and then absconds, gleefully thinking he’s made a killing, only to find he’s the one who’s been ripped off. He’s just fallen victim to Hooker, his mentor and partner in crime Luther, and their confederate Kid Erie (Jack Kehoe).

TheSting05

This opening employs oblique method to get the story moving, starting with the vignette of the numbers racket and following Mottola as he’s suckered in by the expert flimflam of the three conmen, the wise guy outmanoeuvred when he thinks he’s made “the world’s easiest five grand.” Mottola’s surprise is the audience’s surprise, even as we’re schooled in both the cunning method the tricksters employ, their piercing psychology in counting on the greed and dishonesty of the people they take down in the food chain of street life and the quick twists of logic used to sell the scam. This opening also privileges us with information the conmen won’t learn until it’s too late, the mistake they’re unwittingly making in suckering a man working for a big steam operation like Lonnegan’s. The sociology of the film is also, swiftly established: there are big sharks making well-protected fortunes bilking people and the smaller, entrepreneurial kind living on their wits. Astounded by the huge sum they’ve swindled out of Mottola, the three men divide their share, with Luther happily telling the startled and disappointed Hooker that he plans to use his cut to stop grifting altogether. Hooker meanwhile blows all his share, and is then waylaid by corrupt local detective Snyder (Charles Durning), who knows about his windfall and threatens to hand Hooker over to Lonnegan’s people if he doesn’t pay him off. Hooker gives him the counterfeit money he used in the con and then races back to Luther’s place to warn him about the heat coming down, only to find Luther’s been thrown to his death from his apartment window.

TheSting06

Vowing revenge and knowing Joliet is now highly hazardous to his health, Hooker heads to Chicago, where, following Luther’s last piece of advice to him, he looks up Henry Gondorff (Newman), a big-time con artist who’s now hiding out from FBI agents after a sting that went wrong: Hooker appeals to Gondorff to find some way of putting the sting on Lonnegan as payback for Luther because “I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.” Hooker first finds Gondorff lying wedged between his bed and the wall sleeping off a drunk, living as he does with his brothel madam girlfriend Billie (Eileen Brennan) in his efforts to keep hidden from the feds: Johnny’s sour introduction to “the great Henry Gondorff” is a deflating experience. Gondorff, in between soaking his aching face in a sink full of chipped ice and repairing the merry-go-round Billie uses to entertain the children of her clientele, explains the difficulties and deal-breakers, particularly warning Hooker against deciding half-way through that just bilking Lonnegan isn’t enough payback. Nonetheless Gondorff agrees to mastermind the sting not just because Lonnegan’s a big fish who could pay off in a big payday but because of offended professional community pride, a motive he knows others will feel too: “After what happened to Luther I don’t think I could get more than two, three hundred guys.”

TheSting07

Much as he would a couple of years later in Jaws (1975), Shaw gives proceedings a potent dose of theatrical bravura as Lonnegan, introduced playing golf with a underworld friend-rival, refusing to let Hooker get away after Luther’s death because it tarnish his image as an exacting and omnipotent operator lest men like his current golfing opponent thing they can get one over on him. He snaps his intimidating catchphrase “D’ya follow?” at people in his grating Irish-by-way-of-Five Points accent, as vicious and sharklike as anything in Jaws. Lonnegan is another poor boy made good through criminal enterprise but garners absolutely no sympathy because his type of criminal enterprise demands a ruthlessness he dishes out with relish: it’s made clear that he murdered his way to the top of the rackets and murders to stay there. Of course, Lonnegan needs to be a grade-A bastard to make it easier to cheer along our lesser bastard heroes. Gondorff draws together a team of the best grifters he knows, with the dapper Kid Twist (Harold Gould) acting as his agent in hiring the rest of the outfit and doing much of the legwork; he also draws in the motormouthed J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston) and Eddie Niles (John Heffernan). Together they decide to hit Lonnegan with a version of an outmoded con trick called “The Wire,” depending on the brief lag between horse races and the broadcasting of the results, which demands setting up a fake bookie’s office to draw Lonnegan in and get him to put up a big stake on a supposedly sure-fire bet. To get the cash to set up the big sting, a smaller one is needed, so Gondorff swings into action, buying his way into a poker match Lonnegan likes to hold on the train between New York and Chicago, and goes up against him a duel of dextrous cheating.

TheSting08

Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1972) had staked out similar territory the year before in dealing with Depression-era swindlers, although with quite a different relationship at its heart and its setting out in the dusty Midwest. Like many gangster stories, from any of James Cagney’s hoodlum flicks through The Godfather films and the TV series Breaking Bad, The Sting plays games with the audience’s fantasies. It appeals to that part of the viewer who for a moment forgets the rage and insult of being on the wrong side of a con trick and instead reclines in the wish we too had such talents to ward off the worst abuses of the world. The Sting makes this appeal something of a motif, as the main characters, despite their general alienation and outsider stature, are imbued with fraternal distinction and seedy glamour when surrounded by the victims of the Depression camped out in the street and in tent cities under railway lines. Whilst the conmen might any moment be as broke as the other people, they’re by and large never more than a couple of sharp moves away from cash in pocket as long as they keep their cool. Con artists were usually, in earlier crime fiction and movies, depicted as the lowest of the low on the criminal world food chain, but The Sting converts this into part of the appeal. They’re the mostly non-violent, clever, impudent criminal class, usually operating alone or in small teams but when roused capable of fiendish communal purpose and ingenuity, usually punching upwards in their labours, and absent prejudice in their own circles, a zone where a black man like Luther and a white one like Hooker can work together.

TheSting09

The greater part of The Sting’s pleasure is the way invites the viewer into this peculiar little subculture and its mystique – the little rituals, lingo, and signs of recognition all concisely captured and deployed, like the nose rub the grifters use to signal each-other, and the tavern haunt that doubles as a hiring hall. The big question before Hooker is whether, as Luther thought, he’s a truly top-rank conman, because he’s never participated in a trick on the level Gondorff has operated on. The price the grifters pay for their kind of freedom is however constantly reiterated in their isolation, only able to relate to women who are prostitutes or fellow rootless drifters, as when Hooker makes a play for the waitress, Loretta (Dimitra Arliss), he meets in a diner who explains she’s only working there long enough to make enough money to get out of town. Hooker’s inability to get laid, despite looking like Robert Redford, becomes a minor running joke in the film as well as a signifier of his character straits, until he makes anxious, self-lacerating appeal to Loretta: “I’m just like you – it’s two in the morning and I don’t know nobody.” 1930s nostalgia, as improbable as it might have seemed to some who lived through the Depression, had become a familiar pop cultural topic by the time of The Sting. But Hill’s restrained but rigorous sense of style and Ward’s writing are particularly piquant in annexing the ghostly echoes of writers of the era like Damon Runyon and Dashiell Hammett, luxuriating in the old-school streetwise language, and magazine illustrators and advertising as well as, for more elevated reference, artists like George Bellows and Edward Hopper. The division of the film into chapters, each announced with title cards illustrated with vintage Saturday Evening Post-like flavour by Jaroslav Gebr, signals how the film is structured like the ritualistic form of a con game itself.

TheSting10

Part of the narrative’s wit lies precisely in affecting to let the audience in on the art of the con, making the basic mechanics of the sting aimed at Lonnegan comprehensible, whilst also working to keep a few twists hidden, particularly the subplots involving Hooker, who we’re told is the target of a top-notch assassin named Salino, hired by Lonnegan because his local killers Riley (Brad Sullivan) and Cole (John Quade) failed to get him. Hooker is also picked up and strongarmed by an FBI agent, Polk (Dana Elcar), who has also roped in Snyder and bullies them both into helping him nab Gondorff. Snyder, played by the ever-marvellous Durning, has followed Hooker to Chicago in his determination to nail him for the counterfeit payoff. When he happens upon Kid Erie, who’s also come to Chicago on the lam, in a bar, Snyder slams his face against the counter to avenge a quip. He also tries pushing Billie around when he insists on searching her brothel, only for her to warn him to stay out of one room because the chief of police is in there. Snyder represents degraded authority and a cynical sense of society, the nominal enforcer of the law enriching himself by leaning on criminals and punishing infractions as zealously as Lonnegan: Snyder takes it as a matter of logical course that Luther’s death isn’t worth investigating and that his murderer should be escorted safely and unobtrusively from the scene of the intended FBI bust, as Polk commissions him to do. But he’s not as convincing as the gangster in his badass qualifications, as Hooker keeps managing to give him the slip, most notably when Snyder catches Hooker in a phone booth and surprises him ramming his revolver through the glass, only for Hooker to simply open the concertina door, trapping Snyder’s arm long enough to make an escape.

TheSting11

Hill studied 1930s movies and hit upon recreating their relatively sparse approach to utilising extras in street scenes, to help emphasise the isolation of the heroes and the schematics of their self-involved gamesmanship. The sense of throwback style is also extended to the opening credits, which mimic the movies of the early sound era in using Universal’s old logo sequence and introducing the cast with their names and roles with images in the opening credits. And yet The Sting is still most definitely a ‘70s movie, with its buddy movie underpinnings, the Watergate-era sarcasm about power, and the sympathy and affection for characters usually designated as worthless riffraff in any other moment. And like many films that seemed like pure popular fodder in that decade like The Exorcist, Jaws and Rocky (1976), today The Sting, with its low-key, melancholy-soaked texture, character-based storytelling, and sense of finesse in historical and plot detail, feels closer to the art house than today’s big, bludgeoning blockbuster equivalents: the biggest thrills in The Sting come from things like a well-played hand of cards. The Sting relies deeply on the appeal of seeing Redford and Newman, two damn good-looking and charming men as well as accomplished actors, hanging out together on screen, although the storyline polarises their roles more than their precursor vehicle Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Where that film offered a slick and popular variation on the late 1960s’ sense of fatalism for the beautiful loser, The Sting rides its crowd-pleasing impulses all the way, and is the better for it.

TheSting12

Hill stands today as a relatively neglected figure, despite making a handful of bona fide classics and mammoth hits. Hill, who as a young man had a love for Bach and acting and was at one point a student of Paul Hindemith, also had a lifelong passion for flying, obtaining a pilot’s licence at 16. This particular talent made him invaluable in war as he became a pilot in the Marines flying transport planes in World War II, and was later reactivated to be a fighter pilot in Korea. The schism in Hill’s formative experiences, the sensitive young man deeply immersed in art and the active warrior, were mediated through the alternations of striking, gritty realism and flashes of horror and wistful, dreamy detachment in his best movies, perhaps coming closest to articulating this in his underrated adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), whilst his jarring box office bomb The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) revolved around both his love of flying and his trademark sense of dashed and stymied romanticism. Hill, after making a name for himself in the theatre first as an actor and then director, shifted into television in the mid-1950s, including writing and directing for Playhouse 90 a compressed but interesting version of Walter Lord’s Titanic account A Night To Remember two years before the film version. He debuted as a filmmaker with Period of Adjustment (1962).

TheSting13

His follow-up, Toys in the Attic (1963), a Lillian Hellman adaptation starring an improbably cast Dean Martin, nonetheless first articulated a basic theme of wandering innocents trying to comprehend the world and absorb its evil shocks whilst seeking a home or an ideal, a theme infused in most of Hill’s subsequent works, and it made him a perfect fit for the mood of pop culture in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Hill’s first major film, The World of Henry Orient (1964), worked to evoke a wistful, almost fairytale-like style and poignancy whilst also providing moments of satire and high farce, in depicting two teenage girls obsessed with a concert pianist as a distraction from their unhappy home lives. He subsequently scored hits with the glossy, big budget labours Hawaii (1966) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967): the latter helped define Hill’s lighter comedic talents and feel for nostalgia as a dramatic value in itself in his ability to take a quasi-sociological snapshot. Whilst not a showy director, Hill developed a distinctive shooting style, often employing muted and diffused colour to amplify the kind of strong Americana atmosphere he had a special gift for conveying, culminating in the brilliant Slap Shot (1977), a panoramic study of a changing society at that moment partly disguised by the foul-mouthed and raucous vision of ice hockey. In the 1980s Hill scored his last major critical and commercial success with an adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), before a halting version of John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl (1984) and his last work, Funny Farm (1988), which suffered from fights with the studio over what kind of movie it was supposed to be, after which Hill quit cinema and taught drama at Yale.

TheSting14

The Sting depends on Hill’s ability to imbue Ward’s script with a sense of place and time as exacting as the machinations. It’s often noted that the use of Joplin’s music wasn’t a great fit for the late 1930s at the height of big band jazz. But the job of a film score is to describe the film’ evanescent emotional plain, and Joplin’s tunes are perfect for this, as well as suggestively evoking a similar meaning for the characters, beset in adulthood and feeling the pensive tug of the past, that the film as whole has for the audience watching it, describing places just over the line of sight in the past. Whilst much of the film revolves around relatively mundane settings and small gestures that have large meanings, Hill injects nods to the slapstick movie tradition, particularly when he lets the camera hang back to watch slim and fleet-footed Redford trying to elude the bulbous but dancer-nimble Durning. Hill plays games with planes within his framing, as Hooker climbs onto an L station roof to elude the cop, or when he vanishes from the frame as Lonnegan’s goons chase him, only to be carried back into the shot as he clings to the side of street cleaning machine, successfully eluding the hoods. The setting has its sleazy side: Hill beautifully captures the grimly funny tawdriness of an old burlesque show with Hooker’s visit to Crystal early in the film, planning to wow her with his new fortune: Hooker waits in the wings for her to get off stage whilst she, nearly naked, shakes her tits at the sparse audience, and is supplanted on stage by a blue comedian.

TheSting15

As if by counterpoint Hill gains a note faintly surreal and childlike glee in the sight of Billie’s stable of girls gleefully riding the merry-go-round on a quiet night, a vision of strange innocence amidst seediness matching the story’s overall lilt. Hill and cinematographer Robert Surtees often utilise deep-focus shots and use vertical frames within frames, conveying period flavour in the cramped and pokey urban environs the characters inhabit, the small, dingy back rooms, diners, train compartments, and dens of iniquity, and also capturing the psychological pressure, the tightness of their lives, and also contrasted with the blasted, depopulated city streets. Directorial flourishes often have two meanings in the film much like the grifter’s art – at one point Hill’s camera draws back from a window encompassing Hooker and Loretta in bed, a particularly Hopperesque image in the glimpse through from an urban space into a private world, only to pull back further and reveal an unseen presence watching them from across the street, turning the shot into a giallo movie-like vignette complete with black-gloved hands switching off a light, signalling the presence of lurking threat. Later, in a vaguely horror movie-like vignette, Hooker eludes the hitman Cole who’s still hunting for him, only for Riley to be cornered and shot by an unseen figure he calls Salino – the name strongly suggests a nod to the demonic hitman Canino in The Big Sleep (1946). Here, the film’s own sleight-of-hand involving Salino’s identity is foreshadowed, and a note of real menace is struck here to generate tension in the otherwise, generally jaunty proceedings. There’s also another, wryer dimension to this vignette” Salino’s vindictive brutality, killing a colleague because he didn’t get out of the way as professional courtesy demands, also rather cheekily gives the world of assassins a similar sense of a code to that of the hitmen, even if their way of handling things is far less amusing.

TheSting16

Hooker and Gondorff are unusual film protagonists, in their unrepentant criminality but also in their essential ambivalence. Gondorff’s reassurance to Hooker in regards to Lonnegan, “Don’t worry kid – we had him ten years ago when he decided to be somebody,” reflects Gondorff’s jaded knowledge of human nature, the things that make some people successful also being exactly what people like him and Hooker feed off. Gondorff was initially characterised as an aging, portly has-been in Ward’s script – one reason perhaps in the film’s ill-fated, afterthought sequel The Sting II (1982) Jackie Gleason stepped into the role – but was revised when Newman became interested in the role into a charismatic rogue who knows enough angles to be the Pythagoras of crime but one who knows “I could do a lot worse” when Hooker goads him by asking if he wants to remain Billie’s handyman. Although not seen for half-an-hour, Gondorff quickly dominates the film as he sets his peculiar genius to work, seen in a long, droll sequence where he begins the great game against Lonnegan, first by arranging for Billie to lift his wallet and then going toe to toe with him in the card game, schooling Hooker all the while in touches like what kind of liquor to drink with a mark. The resulting, intimate comic set-piece sees Lonnegan’s habitual ferocity easily stoked by Gondorff’s performance, posing as Shaw, an insolent and besotted Chicago bookie who keeps getting Lonnegan’s name wrong, but also outdoes him in card sharping: Lonnegan’s wrath is potent, but it also blinds him to the game he’s really in, which he doesn’t realise until he’s soundly beaten. Hill cuts at one point to an exterior view of the train passing by the fire of some encamped hobos, another jabbing reminder of the social landscape beyond the hermetic workings of the plot and the obsessiveness of the characters.

TheSting17

Hooker sets the next phase of the plan in motion by posing as Shaw’s disaffected henchman. The humour has a queasy undercurrent as just how close to the edge the tricksters are dancing is made clear when Lonnegan is swiftly moved to murder Hooker when he reveals ‘Shaw’s’ con, something only Hooker’s self-possession and quick line of patter staves off. Hooker’s role is to pretend to want to draw Lonnegan into his plot to bankrupt his hated boss by feeding him tips on winning horses in races, supplied by a source working for Western Union. When Lonnegan demands to meet the source, Kid Twist steps into the role, he and Singleton bluffing their way in to take over a Western Union office for a few minutes, long enough to pull off the deception. Whilst the mechanics of these scenes carefully lay out for the audience just how the grifters are taking down Lonnegan, other aspects of the plot are still ambiguous, the blow from the mysterious Salino waiting to fall, and the FBI leaning on the anguished Hooker to betray his new pals. These elements threaten to prove the ghost in the well-sprung machine, particularly as Hooker’s habit of keeping secrets from Gondorff has already almost gotten him killed.

TheSting18

Whilst the star power of Newman and Redford anchor the film with their megawattage charm and crafty performances, the remarkably good cast of character actors giving them support also give it flesh. Some of the strong turns include Gould, whose Kid Twist presents the incarnation of what perhaps every grifter wants to be as they get older, worldly and debonair and sublimely easy in their command of studied surfaces, and Kehoe, whose Kid Erie is the opposite, a small-timer like Hooker who wants a bit of payback and to prove himself capable in high-pressure situations. He gets his chance when Twist hires him and he successfully pushes the hook just a little bit deeper in Lonnegan in playing a gabby gambler hanging about Shaw’s bookie office. Jones, father of James Earl, does an invaluable job in a short time as he gives the film its initial dose of pathos, presenting the more realistic face of the aging con man, tired, greying, happy to take whatever happy exit he can grab. There’s also a great example of how an actor with a small role can almost steal a movie with one well-turned line, in this case Avon Long as Benny, the agent who rents Kid Twist the necessary fittings for the fake bookie’s office who, after Twist asks him if he wants to be paid a flat rate or get a percentage of the score and then learns the mark is Lonnegan, responds with wisest of wiseguy drawls, “Flat rate,” as there’s a good chance no-one might be alive to claim his money from.

TheSting19

Amidst the largely masculine milieu and cast, Arliss and Brennan provide strong, refreshingly earthy presences. Billie’s relationship with Gondorff presents the only strong human attachment anyone glimpsed in the film retains, and she stands up to Snyder with a nonchalance that’s almost transcendental. The turning gears of the plot finally begin reaching their climax after Hill portrays his heroes, and villains, waking and readying on the morning of the main event with a sense of breath being inhaled and held. Hooker is surprised to find Loretta gone from her bed when he wakes up alone, but is pleased to see her in the alley outside, only for a gunman to appear behind her and plant a bullet in her forehead. Hooker, shocked, nonetheless finds the gunman (Joe Tornatore), the man who was watching him from across the street, was actually sent by Gondorff to protect him, and Loretta was Salino, who couldn’t kill Hooker the night before for witnesses but found the perfect way to keep him on ice overnight. A jarring moment but another one where the world of con artistry and professional murder have their common aspects in the game of concealment and surprise, Hooker almost falling victim to someone willing to play a long game.

TheSting20

The other dangling subplot is resolved at the same time as the central tale, as Lonnegan descends into the bookie joint to place a mammoth $500,000 bet, goading ‘Shaw’ into taking the bet: “Not only are ye a cheat, you’re a gutless cheat as well.” The last twist of the knife is delivered, as Kid Twist in character as the source drives Lonnegan to apoplexy in his mortified report Lonnegan was meant to bet on the horse to place rather than win, but just as Lonnegan begins raising hell in bursts Polk and his agents with Snyder: Gondorff guns down Hooker when he realises he’s screwed him over, and Polk immediately shoots Gondorff. Snyder bustles Lonnegan out: the gangster should know he’s well out of it, but his fixation on his money almost overrides his good sense. Of course, once Lonnegan’s gone, the dead rise from the floor and wipe away the fake blood, fake FBI man shakes hands with resurrected Gondorff, and the band of merrie men start packing up to head their different ways, much richer and rather satisfied: “You’re right,” Hooker comments to Gondorff, harking back to the older man’s warning: “It’s not enough…But it’s close.”

TheSting21

Hooker turns down his share of the take, not through some phoney attack of conscience – one thing the movie is blissfully freed from is any kind of official morality – but because he’s gained something in self-knowledge, an awareness of why he does the things he does and a sense of what he needs to do to escape his own vicious circle. So he and Gondorff stride off together, seen off by Hill with the last of his old-timey touches, an iris shot, closing the curtain on this rarefied annex where show business and crime readily commingle. The Sting has remained a permanent wellspring of influence in Hollywood, and not just in providing a reusable template to a subgenre of likeable, swashbuckling criminal trickster movies like Focus (2015) or Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 series, which owes it infinitely more than the movie they nominally remade, and darker but still similar fare like The Usual Suspects (1995), but arguably in the whole craze for twist and puzzle narratives seen in the past quarter-century. But The Sting remains inimitable in its most fundamental qualities, its cast, its insouciant veneer and gentle mockery of familiar movie melodrama, and its old-fashioned faith that, no matter how clever the gimmick, what finally delivers the gold is the human element.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Thriller

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) / The Towering Inferno (1974)

.

Directors: Ronald Neame / John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Screenwriters: Wendell Mayes, Stirling Silliphant / Stirling Silliphant

By Roderick Heath

Sparked by the success of Airport (1970) but really catching fire with the release of The Poseidon Adventure, the disaster film became the premier genre for star-laden blockbuster filmmaking and special effects spectacle through much of the 1970s before Star Wars (1977) rudely supplanted it with science fiction. Whilst he didn’t make all of the era’s big disaster movies, producer Irwin Allen became synonymous with them to the point where he was granted the popular nickname “The Master of Disaster.” Funnily enough, up until The Poseidon Adventure Allen had instead been better known for sci-fi, making films like The Lost World (1960) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and TV shows including the latter film’s spin-off, Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. The son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents who grew up poor in New York, Allen first grazed show business by moving to Hollywood in search of job opportunities after the Depression forced him to drop out of college. He spent time editing a magazine before moving into radio and then a syndicated gossip column, before his understanding of the shifting gravity in Hollywood away from studios to talent agencies let him begin producing TV and finally films.

Allen gained success and plaudits with the stock footage-laden documentaries The Sea Around Us (1953) and The Animal World (1954), and applied a similar technique to the much-derided, patched-together fantasy-historical survey The Story of Mankind (1957), a film that evinced his faith in star power and interest in Biblical-scale tales of travail. Soon Allen turned to colourful sci-fi fare to appeal to a young audience. As a director Allen was only competent, and often the films he made himself, as would befall the very expensive but hilariously bad The Swarm (1978), betrayed his lack of instincts in that direction. But as an impresario he had few rivals, and The Poseidon Adventure and its immediate follow-up The Towering Inferno were huge, glitzy hits that cut across the fond legend that at the time everyone was watching moody art films about losers in washed-out denim, although they certainly matched the tenor of the moment with its sense of decay, bad faith, and lost idealism. When he pivoted to disaster movies, Allen found a way to recreate Cecil B. DeMille’s storied brand of epic, fire-and-brimstone storytelling for a new age, tailored to exploiting the mood of the 1970s with its guilty hedonism and equally guilty hunger for old Hollywood values even as the New Hollywood was officially ascendant. Indeed, the basic plot of The Towering Inferno is very similar to the modern-day half of DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments (1923).

The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno today might look like relics of a certain phase in Hollywood despite still being enormously entertaining. The ‘70s disaster movie genre never quite recovered from the pasting delivered by Airplane! (1980), a film that paid immediate homage-cum-ridicule to the style. In their time Allen’s films deftly tapped fashionable trends: they have something in common with The Exorcist (1973) not just in craftsmanship and storytelling savvy but in exploiting a certain guilty moralism amidst the zipless vicissitudes of the Me Decade as well as its fulminating fantasies about weathering such storms with a renewed sense of solidity. But Allen’s two best disaster films are still crucially emblematic of the emerging ideal of the blockbuster movie: indeed few other passages of cinema represent the blockbuster promise better than the opening credits of The Towering Inferno. Allen’s sense of Hollywood glamour was entirely rooted in movie stars and production values, and despite dealing in spectacle would rather spend his money on them rather than special effects, one reason he was completely bewildered by the rule-rewriting popularity of the almost big-name actor-free, FX-heavy Star Wars. There’s detectable Allen influence present in hit films as diverse as Die Hard (1987) and The Avengers films with their roster of carefully selected star turns, as well more obviously in Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich’s mega-budget breakage festivals. One obvious bridge between these two ages of Hollywood was the composer Allen brought over from his TV shows, John Williams, whose talent for emotionally textured scoring matched to outsized storytelling is as vital to the two Allen films just as it would be for Steven Spielberg.

Critics often take umbrage at the theatre of cruelty inherent in disaster movies, with some good reason, being as it is a genre that involves death on a mass scale. But that’s also part of its weird appeal, a quality it shares with horror movies: whilst there are usually certain expected didactic beats, it’s still an unusually unstable and unpredictable mode of storytelling in terms of characters and their fates, as well as usually boiling down to plain adventure tales about ordinary people trying to survive terrible situations. Paradoxically, they also purvey a dark-hearted lampooning of a crumbling ideal of Hollywood’s specialness, portraying quasi-celebrities and hangers-on or people thrust into situations once fit for Hollywood mythicism – ocean liners, skyscrapers – only to behold the fragility and tacky insubstantiality of such glamour. Allen’s films proved marketplaces where many different strata of Hollywood actor could commingle and attract different sectors of the audience.

Serious-minded, theatre-trained A-listers like Paul Newman and Gene Hackman rubbed shoulders with young, over-polished TV ingénues, veteran character actors, and aging studio-era stars who brought with them the aura of faded class, walking the line between retro camp and pathos in their presence. For his two signal hits in this mould, Allen was smart enough to employ well-weathered directors, although he would handle shooting action sequences for The Towering Inferno himself. Both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were directed by experienced, robust, no-nonsense British filmmakers, with Ronald Neame handling the former and John Guillermin the latter. Both films deal with situations where a number of characters are trapped in a deadly situation and race against time to survive, the former film depicting the survivors of a cruise ship capsized by a monstrous freak wave, the latter recounting efforts to save people trapped in a new skyscraper that becomes a flaming death trap. The former film is the superior in terms of its dramatic integrity and intensity, the latter as a piece of grandiose entertainment.

The Poseidon Adventure was adapted from a 1969 novel by Paul Gallico, a writer who had cut his teeth writing for publications like The Saturday Evening Post in the 1930s and ‘40s with their hunger for slick, polished, sentiment-greased turns of prose, and was best-known for his delicately symbolic novella The Snow Goose. Gallico reportedly took some inspiration for his plot from a story told to him by a crewman on the Queen Mary during its World War II troop ship service when it was almost capsized by a colossal rogue wave. Fittingly, the film’s early scenes were shot on the Queen Mary shortly after its retirement and installation as a floating hotel off Long Beach, California. Allen produced the film on a substantial but relatively restrained budget of $4.7 million at a time when Hollywood was counting its pennies stringently after the deadly days of the late 1960s. Gallico’s novel, despite his somewhat flat characters, tried to articulate a philosophy in portraying their straits when their world is literally turned upside down. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of The Poseidon Adventure as a film is that some of the philosophy actually survives the transfer, and might even have been clarified.

Hackman, stretching his legs for his first bit of Hollywood leading man business after winning an Oscar for The French Connection (1971), was cast as Reverend Scott, a strident, charismatic slum priest being deported to an African parish by his superiors. The film fixates on Scott as the angry and rebellious voice of defiance against helplessness and false idols, chiefly authority and illusory comfort, memorably illustrating his conviction the Lord helps those who help themselves: “You can wear off your knees praying for heat in a cold-water flat in February.” In this way The Poseidon Adventure cleverly courts the way the anti-authoritarian mood of the moment as it was being converted into a mode of pop culture shtick. The distrust of certain forms of power is signalled early in the film when Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), Captain of the aging, about-to-be scrapped ocean liner S.S. Poseidon butts heads with the representative of the owners, Linarcos (Fred Sadoff). Linarcos wants the ship delivered on schedule to the wrecking yard and won’t allow any delay to take on more ballast, leaving the ship top-heavy to a degree everyone aboard becomes queasily aware of as the ship rides out heavy weather in the mid-Mediterranean. On New Year’s Eve, many passengers assemble for a party in the first class dining room, but the Captain is called to the bridge when, following reports of an earthquake off Crete, the radar picks up a huge tsunami heading their way.

These scenes introduce key characters, all familiar types, in vignettes mostly striking a humorous note whilst establishing who and what everyone with little subtlety. There’s Mr Manny and Mrs Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), an old Jewish-American couple heading to Israel to see their infant grandson. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) is a sceptical New York detective travelling with his brassy, high-strung former prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens). James Martin (Red Buttons) is a haberdasher and luckless bachelor preoccupied with his health. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) is a comely young lass resentfully stuck with her overeager, nerdy younger brother Martin (Eric Shea) as they travel to meet up with their parents. Nonny Parry (Carol Lynley) is a sweet and blowsy singer in a band with her brother, employed on the ship for the cruise’s duration and bound for a music festival. And there’s Scott, who forcefully explains his peculiar worldview to the ship’s more conventional if quietly decent Chaplain (Arthur O’Connell) and gives a vigorous guest sermon attended by many of the important characters where he espouses an existential, questing, empowered kind of faith, where he declares God “wants winners, not quitters – if you can’t win then at least try to win!”

The opening vignettes often border on camp, particularly with Stevens’ loud performance as a loud woman (“For chrissakes I know what suppositories are, just get them out of here!” she tells her husband in her seasick eagerness to get rid of the ship’s doctor and nurse) and the theatrical confrontations between the Captain and Linarcos, who’s offered as a kind of slimy Onassis stand-in. Nielsen was later cast in Airplane! in homage to his performance as the doomed captain here, who so memorably mutters in stark solemnity, “Oh my god!” when he spots the wave bearing down upon his ship and makes a last-ditch effort to turn into it. The film clicks into gear in this sequence, as the wave hits whilst the midnight celebrations are in full swing. Neame cuts with shamelessly effective technique between the passengers’ increasingly merry, dizzy, oblivious sing-along to “Auld Lang Syne,” including close-ups of the obviously not celibate Scott carousing with a woman on each arm and young Robin frantically cheery, contrasted with the bridge crew’s stark, horrified awareness of impending disaster. When the colossal wave strikes the ship it rolls over with agonising slowness and finality, wiping out the bridge and tossing the passengers in the dining room about like so much confetti, climaxing with a famous shot of a luckless passenger who managed to cling onto a table losing his grip and plunging a great height into a false skylight.

Scott inevitably greets the disaster as the ultimate challenge to his special brand of muscular Christianity as he begins trying to organise the survivors and follows Robin’s advice thanks to his knowledge of the ship, as the kid suggests they should head for a propeller shaft where the hull is thinnest and most easily cut through by rescuers. Scott immediately finds himself in a shouting match with the ship’s purser (Byron Webster), who recommends staying put and waiting for rescue despite the obvious precariousness of their lot. “That’s not true!” the purser bellows when Scott declares no help is coming, to Scott’s retort, “It is true you pompous ass!” Scott and others appropriated the collapsed steel-framed Christmas tree to use as a ladder to reach a way out, where injured steward Acres (Roddy MacDowall) is stranded. Scott also repeatedly butts heads with Rogo, but the cop and his wife still join the Rosens and the Shelbys in aiding Scott. Martin coaxes the stunned and grief-stricken Nonny, whose brother died in the capsizing, to come with them. The sea breaks into the dining room, starting to flood it just as Scott’s party have ascended, and the ensuing panic causes the Christmas tree to collapse, obliging the agonised Scott to move on with what flock he has. Led by Acres through the formerly civilised but now dangerous obstacle course that is the ship’s interior, including the fiery death-trap of the kitchen and various shafts and stairwells, the survivors make agonising progress, and Acres falls to his death when exploding boilers shake the ship.

Neame, a former cinematographer who had collaborated as producer with David Lean before he moved into directing himself, was an intermittently excellent filmmaker. He sometimes got bogged down in glossy productions like the dull The Million Pound Note (1955) and a string of flat melodramas when he went to Hollywood in the 1960s, but made some terrific films including the underrated thrillers The Golden Salamander (1950), The Man Who Never Was (1956), and Escape From Zahrain (1962), as well as prestigious, well-regarded dramas about prickly, asocial or combative characters including The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Tunes of Glory (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The Poseidon Adventure, Neame’s biggest hit and one he later referred to dryly as his favourite work because it made him enough money to retire well on, was nonetheless perfect for him as it allowed him to sustain his interest in dynamic but difficult characters and combative relationships from his dramas in a survival situation close to those he liked in his genre films.

There are touches of gauche Hollywoodism, of course, finding excuses to get Stevens and Martin partly undressed and leaving Winters fully clothed whilst using her plumpness as a source of humour, as when Scott has to push her broad rump up through the spokes of the Christmas tree. Part of the film’s mystique as popular hit was the inclusion of the lilting, syrupy, insidiously catchy song “The Morning After”, nominally warbled by Nonny early in the film during her band’s rehearsal but actually sung by Maureen McGovern, providing an apt note of promise in regards to survival in almost Greek chorus fashion. The song won an Oscar and Allen would recommission McGovern to perform the similar “We May Never Love Like This Again” in The Towering Inferno. Nonetheless The Poseidon Adventure’s tautness once it gets going derives from the relentlessness of both the storyline, the banal yet chaotically defamiliarised setting and the constant flow of obstacles to be surmounted, and the hell of other people, as the survivors contend with each-other in brittle fashion in pinball game of personality.

The script, penned by the talented Hollywood ultra-professional Stirling Silliphant, an Oscar-winner for his work on In The Heat of the Night (1967), and Wendell Mayes, buffs down the edges of Gallico’s story a lot, excising a pathetic alcoholic couple as well as Susan and David’s parents from the group. In the novel Robin vanishes and is presumed dead, leaving his parents guilt-ridden and mutually hateful, whilst Susan was sexually assaulted by a panic-stricken young crewman who she then, rather oddly strikes up friendship with, only for him to run off in remorse to presumably die. The film instead places emphasis on the dynamics of the smaller group of survivors in their discovery of hidden resources and mixture of necessity and unease in mutual reliance. Sparks constantly fly as the rival types of alpha masculinity Scott and Rogo represent clash, Scott with his unflinching sense of mission aggravating Rogo’s cynical resistance and tendency to look to other figures of rank for authority. Scott with his turtleneck somehow still manages to look dashing when bedraggled whilst Rogo is a lump of boxy, grimy flesh. Rogo eventually demands to know why Scott is so utterly resistant to other options, as when they encounter another group of survivors being led by the doctor who are intent on heading for the bow rather than stern. Scott on the other hand maintains his utter derision of anything resembling herd mentality and blind obedience to empty promises based in fear and deference to anyone who sounds confident in denial of facts.

In this way, the inner core of surprising seriousness working as a parable about leadership and faith is enacted in the best way, through action and necessity of dramatic flow, whilst Hackman and Borgnine’s big, bristling performances provide the energy. Scott’s behaviour borders on the messianic even as his resolve and sense of purpose keep the others alive, berating the infuriated Rogo for failing to save Acres, whilst Rogo’s own wife constantly mocks his tendency to rely too much on a veneer of authority as meaning in itself. Martin’s gentle, solicitous way with helping Nonny through the disaster reveals his remarkably level head, whilst Lynley is excellent in playing the sort of character everyone tends to dislike because Nonny is the one no-one wants to be, a waifish innocent paralysed with fear at points: I particularly like the way Nonny vows “No, I won’t,” when Martin tells her to not to let go of him, nailing a note of giddy-fretful overemphasis in trying to be brave. Susan meanwhile has a crush on Scott, who treats her with fatherly affection and appreciates her support as he forges ahead despite the friction with Rogo. Her brother is an unusually believable kind of movie kid in his blend of cheek and fervent knowing, cheerily telling Mrs Rosen as he helps heave her up a stairwell he’s experienced in this sort of thing after helping boat a three hundred pound swordfish once, only to later apologise for any comparison.

In a much-beloved and oft-lampooned twist, Mrs Rosen, who constantly frets about her weight and status as an encumbrance, discovers her inner action hero and leaps to the rescue in recalling her glory days as a swimmer when the group must traverse a flooded section of the engine room and Scott gets trapped under a piece of wreckage blazing the trail, saving his life but promptly dying of a heart attack. Belle’s death is registered as the film’s signal moment of authentic tragedy, the passing of a motherly, gutsy figure played by an actress whose presence kept the film tethered to the mythology of old Hollywood. The ugly toll mounts as Linda falls to her death when the survivors seem on the brink of their goal, Rogo unleashing his rage and sorrow on Scott for his own empty promises, whilst the minister is confronted by a leaking steam valve blocking their path, an impediment that almost seems to personify the vindictive forces that seem intent on foiling their efforts to prove their living worth. Scott certainly takes it as such, berating it as the stand-in for the God he’s frustrated with as he makes a dangerous leap to grab the wheel to shut it off and then, as if in self-sacrifice, lets himself drop into the flame-wreathed brine below.

The Poseidon Adventure might well have been the first film I’d ever seen as a small boy where the hero dies, and so inevitably left a deep impact on me in this regard. What’s significant to me now is that the film clearly stands out from the pack of similar films through the way it tries to explore survival not just in a video game-like fashion of surmounting problems and stages but wrestling with its meaning. This theme runs through the movie like a live nerve, probing the worth of Scott’s conviction whilst ultimately validating them, and the way fighting for survival immediately provokes the characters to rise or fall depending on their capacities. The ultimate moment of rescue for the remaining characters is a plaintive, surprisingly muted moment, as they stand watching the cutting torch of rescuers burn through the hull, the answering light of salvation in comparison to the devil of the steam valve. Finally they’re pulled out and learn they’re the only survivors, before they’re ushered onto a helicopter that lifts off, leaving behind the upturned ship. As if by sarcastic design, The Towering Inferno begins with a helicopter in flight bringing its hero into danger: Paul Newman’s genius, playboy architect Doug Roberts, making for San Francisco to behold his masterwork, the 138–floor Glass Tower, rising like a great golden lance above the city.

Allen spent more than three times the budget on The Towering Inferno he had on The Poseidon Adventure, making a film that set out self-consciously to emulate grand old Hollywood extravaganzas like Grand Hotel (1932) with an added edge of apocalyptic drama, and was rewarded with an even bigger hit. Allen again hired Silliphant to write the film, this time melding two different novels with the same basic plot, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, a mating demanded when Allen convinced both Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros., who were planning rival films of the two books, to pool resources. This time the director was the Guillermin, who was both admired and hated for his demanding, exacting, even bellicose on-set style. Guillermin worked his way up through weak screen filler in the early 1950s before gaining attention with films including the brilliant neo-western Never Let Go (1960) and the plaintive drama Rapture (1965), and his string of  sardonic, antiheroic war films The Guns of Batasi (1964), The Blue Max (1966), and The Bridge at Remagen (1969). Despite his very real talents, in the ‘70s and ‘80s Guillermin found himself more prized for his ability to corral big budget opuses.

As in The Poseidon Adventure, responsibility for disaster in The Towering Inferno is laid not merely at the door of terrible chance but nefarious and corrupt business dealings. This time the theme is pushed more forcefully, in a movie that also proved uniquely well-suited to the season of Watergate’s last, sclerotic spasms and all the ensuing fear of decline and torpor it generated. Leaving aside any questions as to why someone would want to build the world’s tallest building in an earthquake zone, Doug’s magnum opus required engineering on a demanding scale, but he soon finds the electrical contractor, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), has installed cheap and inadequate wiring and pocketed the money saved. Roger is happy to point out that his father-in-law, Jim Duncan (William Holden), the real estate mogul responsible for financing the build, regularly pushes all his contractors to keep costs down. They soon discover the price for hubris is steep, as electrical fires begin breaking out all over the building on the night of its official opening, with a swanky gala being held in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor and every light in the structure turned on, overloading the frail systems.

The rapidly multiplying blaze, uncontained by sprinklers that won’t work, soon threatens the life of everyone in the building, which is split between residential and business floors. Doug and his chief engineer Will Giddings (Norman Burton) try to track down one outbreak, only for Giddings to be fatally burned saving a security guard as the conflagration bursts loose. Like many disaster movies the storyline’s ritual structure courts likeness to the Titanic sinking, with much made of the new building’s seemingly invulnerable façade and nabobs forced to display grace under pressure when things go to hell. Amongst the many characters entrapped by the blaze are Doug’s magazine editor fiancé Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway) and Roger’s wife Patty (Susan Blakely), Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughan), city Mayor Bob Ramsay (Jack Collins) and his wife Paula (Sheila Matthews Allen), Duncan’s PR man Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) and his office lover Lorrie (Susan Flannery), and building resident Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) and her date for the night, sweet-talking conman Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire).

The blaze soon attracts the SF Fire Department en masse, under the leadership of Chief Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), who along with his firefighters confronts a blaze that proves impossible to tame by any conventional tactic. Duncan is initially reluctant to halt the party when he thinks they’re only facing a small, localised blaze, and doesn’t begin to evacuate until Mike tells him to in no uncertain terms, but the spreading fire soon cuts off all routes. Doug finds himself tasked with saving Lisolette and the two children (Carlena Gower and Mike Lookinland) of her neighbour she ventured down to fetch, after spotting her over a CCTV camera and dashing to the rescue. High winds make helicopter landings too dangerous – one attempt to brave the gusts causes a chopper crash. With the help of the Navy, the firefighters make recourse to suspending a breeches buoy between the Glass Tower and a neighbouring building and drawing people over one by one, a method that proves painfully slow and perilous as the guests draw lots to escape.

The opening shots of The Towering Inferno track Doug’s helicopter flying down the California coast and bursting out of a fog bank to behold the Golden Gate Bridge and sweeping over the bay in screen-filling vistas. Doug’s ‘70s bachelor cred is fully confirmed he swans in wearing a Safari jacket, beholding his magnificent yet termited creation from the chopper as it barrels over the San Francisco skyline, all set to Williams’ surging, venturesome scoring, immediately declares this film is going to be a thrill ride, as opposed to the tragic ominousness his scoring for the earlier film suggested. The spectacular cinematography by Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc would win one of the film’s several Oscars, despite having some rivals like The Godfather Part II and Chinatown that year with more artistic quality to their shooting, but the Academy seemed to sense a reclamation of Hollywood’s imperial stature apparent in the The Towering Inferno’s technical might and gloss. The quiet early scenes are better than those in The Poseidon Adventure if grazing high class soap opera or bestseller territory – the presence of Flannery, much to later to become a fixture on The Bold and the Beautiful, makes that connection more literal. The percolating social movements of the moment are nudged as Doug and Susan negotiate potential wrinkles in their relationship – Doug wants to retire to a remote ranch and become a rich dropout whilst Susan wants to take a big new job – after enjoying an afternoon shag in his apartment in the Tower.

Other characters go about their lives, with good little touches like Lisolette’s neighbour, mother of the kids she sets out to save, being deaf and so potentially oblivious to alarms. Astaire and Jones provide the regulation shot of old school star power. Astaire, rather astoundingly, gained his first and only Oscar nomination for his performance as the professionally charming, deceitful but essentially good-hearted Harlee. Astaire’s class in his tailor-made role is apparent when Harlee is introduced with a clue he’s busted as he laboriously counts out change to the taxi driver who delivers him to the building, and later confesses his wicked ways to Lisolette: “I brought you up here tonight to sell you a thousand shares in Greater Anaheim Power and Light…There is no Greater Anaheim Power and Light!” His sincerity is signalled when he dashes to cover a burn victim with his tuxedo jacket, a garment Guillermin has already let us know is rented. This detail is noted in an earlier scene that offers a gentle parody of his famous Royal Wedding (1951) hotel room dance scene as he similarly prepares himself for a date only to note the wrinkles on his face and throw down his hands in despair, only to strike a newly confident stance and get down to flimflamming.

The Towering Inferno demanded a lot more special effects work than The Poseidon Adventure, and whilst some of L.B. Abbott’s effects haven’t aged well, like the many rear-projected shots, there’s still some frightening majesty in the exterior surveys of the blazing building, as well as the admirable stunt work throughout. The film is of course replete with strong cliffhanger sequences, like the long scene mid-film where Doug leads Lisolette and the kids to safety finds them traversing a mangled stairwell, forced to climb down a dangling, twisted piece of railing over a bottomless pit. The cute kids are safe in such a movie, but elsewhere the film delights in dealing out death and mayhem. In true morality play/slasher movie fashion Bigelow and Lorrie die when, having snuck away for a quickie, find themselves trapped by the flames and die memorably cruel deaths. Williams’ music surges in grandly tragic refrains as Bigelow tries to make a desperate run for help only to quickly stumble and catch alight, all filmed in gruelling slow motion, whilst Susan accidentally blasts herself into space when she smashes a window and gets struck by the backdraft. When a bunch of party guests cram themselves into an elevator against all warnings and try to descend, the elevator returns soon after and disgorges them all ablaze and charred. Later the film ruthlessly inverts the game of moralistic expectation when Lisolette, the most innocent character in the film, falls to her death after saving a child, a shocking moment even after the umpteenth viewing.

If not as interesting and sustained as the survivalist philosophy in The Poseidon Adventure, the film is also given a level of depth beyond mere pretext in its approach to Doug, Roger, and Duncan and their varying levels of complicity in the disaster. Doug questions, “What do they call it when you kill people?” whilst knocking back stiff drinks mid-crisis. Early in the film Doug’s visit to Roger’s house to rumble him for his cheats leads into a vignette of odd pathos as Roger and Patty graze the void between them – “All I want is the man I thought I married” – that is weirdly similar in tone and undercurrents to Chamberlain’s early eye-catching role in Petulia (1968), and in the same locale to boot, with Chamberlain playing the superficially suave and sleek golden boy who’s actually a mass of furies. Roger is a progenitor of all the spineless creeps who would soon become regulation villain figures in ‘80s genre films, but offered with a deal more complexity, with his blend of guilty, pathetic chagrin and will for self-preservation. He declares his intention to “get quietly drunk” and needles Duncan over his complicity in his own misdeeds, before trying to butt his way into the queue for the breeches buoy, only for his father-in-law to sock him and declare they’ll be the last two out. Roger eventually dies along with Parker and others in a battle to control the buoy during which it collapses. Parker, whilst generally acting like a good guy throughout the drama, is nonetheless introduced being courted by Duncan with a soft bribe involving a case of vintage wine.

The amazing cast extends down to excellent character actors like Don Gordon as Mike’s number two. There’s even O.J. Simpson giving a surprisingly deft and personable performance as the stalwart security chief Jernigan, who saves the deaf mother and later delivers Lisolette’s pet cat to a distraught Harlee. Scott (Felton Perry) and Powers (Ernie Orsatti) are two firemen who are appointed as the representative workaday heroes: Scott groans in distress when he first realises, as they ride atop a fire truck through the city streets amidst the din towards their destination, just where the fire they’re going to is. They find themselves in the centre of the action when they meet up with Doug and his charges and climb to the Promenade Room, having to blow their way through the blocked fire door to reach the guests. Later Powers draws the job of accompanying some guests down in a hotwired elevator that rides along the building exterior, only for a gas blast to knock the elevator off its rails and leave it dangling, causing Lisolette’s fatal fall. Mike has to get himself choppered up to get the elevator hooked so the helicopter can lower it to the ground, with Mike hanging on to Powers after he’s nearly jolted loose during the agonisingly slow journey down. In a spectacular twist on the man falling into the skylight in The Poseidon Adventure, Powers slips from Mike’s grasp still far above the street only to land on an inflatable cushion, in perhaps the film’s greatest moment of spectacle.

The credits notably gave McQueen and Newman equal, staggered billing, a moment of wry triumph for McQueen considering he’d long regarded Newman as both a figure of emulation and his singular rival for a lot of roles. Aptly if ironically, The Towering Inferno eventually becomes a ‘70s buddy movie as Doug and Mike try to work together with their sharply polarised personas but equally professional temperaments, as well as Newman and McQueen’s very different acting styles. Mike doesn’t appear until forty minutes into the film but immediately dominates as McQueen’s signature minimalist, hangdog look of frayed and weathered stoicism where emotion lives only in deep wells behind his lethal blue gaze, is perfect for playing an action hero who’s also a world-weary working stiff. He’s the living embodiment of everything that’s the antithesis of the glossy magazine world represented by the people on the Promenade Room, accepting all the crazy and dangerous jobs the fire demands and quietly but exactly telling Doug off for building death-traps people like him have to risk their lives in: “Now you know there’s no sure way we can fight a fire that’s over the seventh floor. But you guys just keep building them as high as you can.” Later, in a particularly great shot, Guillermin’s camera surveys the building lobby full of the injured and shattered and finds Mike, having performed a great feat of bravery, slumped against the wall and resting, indistinguishable from his fellow fire fighters in exhaustion, only to be called off to action again. Dunaway, like Newman and McQueen at the apex of mid-‘70s star power, is by comparison pretty wasted, although Susan’s early scenes with Doug are interesting in introducing a nascent meditation on emerging feminism obliging new understandings.

The balance between Allen’s investment in human drama as a channel for and manifestation of the politics of Hollywood star power and Guillermin’s fascination for disillusioned romanticism and agonised social climbers lies in the sputtering empathy shown the characters who all have their spurring ambitions that turn into queasy self-owns. It’s telling that despite Duncan’s culpability the film spares him and grants him a level of dignity as a conflicted patriarch whose upright side ultimately wins through as he tries, once the situation becomes plainly urgent, to hold things together and run the evacuation right, even socking Roger when he tries to push his way into the breeches buoy. Perhaps this respect is because Duncan feels most like an avatar for Allen himself, a man of vision and enterprise who nonetheless knew how to get things done in cutting the right corners at the perpetual risk of producing something tony but shoddy, squeezed between the conscientious auteur Doug, the on-the-make young gun Roger, and Mike as the embodiment of all the bills coming due, throwing parties for the rich and famous whose air of glamour and power is mocked by calamity. Harlee, likewise has some resemblance to a down-on-his luck industry player trying to sustain himself between hits through constantly promising a slice of the next big thing.

The Towering Inferno is then a film really about Hollywood, its sense of anxiety and dislocation matching that of the country at large in the mid-1970s moment, surviving on the fumes of former greatness but finally looking to its big new stars to save the day. And save it they do, in both senses. Mike is sent up to take the last chance for saving the remaining guests, dropped onto the Tower’s roof to meet up with Doug and blow open some colossal water tanks in the building’s upper reaches. This unleashes a flood that douses the fire, even if the cure proves nearly as dangerous as the disease, blasts and torrents of water killing several survivors including the Mayor and the affable bartender (Gregory Sierra). The climax is tremendous as Williams cranks up the tension with his music in league with Guillermin’s editing.

The unleashed war of fire and water finally offers an entirely elemental battle, amidst which the humans are reduced to flailing afterthoughts, including one startling shot of Astaire tied to a column with hands over his ears, water crashing upon him. The flood subsides and leaves the survivors to pick themselves up amidst drifting mist with a touch of mystical import, echoing the sea mist at the opening. The coda blends triumph with a tone of exhaustion and forlorn loss, registered most keenly by Harlee as he looks for Lisolette only for Jernigan to plant her cat in his arms, whilst Duncan consoles his widowed daughter. It’s hard to imagine a movie as pricey and popular these days signing off with one of its major protagonists considering leaving his grand creation as a blackened husk as Doug comments, “Maybe they oughta just leave it the way it is – kinda shrine to all the bullshit in the world,” and asking Mike for advice, the fire chief heading off home after another day at the office.

And that’s perhaps the most appealing and potent aspect of Allen’s twin great disaster movies nearly a half-century later – big, brash, and cheesy as they certainly are, they are nonetheless movies that take themselves seriously on the right levels, and offer cinematic spectacle still rooted to the earth and the travails of ordinary people whilst finding biblical-scale drama in eminently possible situations. They convey a lingering sense of existence very fitting for creative hands borne out of Depression and war, the feeling that every now and then, no matter how stable and safe the world is, the bottom can suddenly drop out and demand every particle of a person to survive. Allen’s problem was that having found a good thing he went back to the well too many times, first with The Swarm with its ridiculous tale of a killer bee invasion, and then when that failed essentially remaking The Towering Inferno as When Time Ran Out…. There Allen swapped the Glass Tower for a resort hotel next to an erupting volcano, with Newman and Holden basically playing the same roles whilst offering screen time and sympathy to the film’s Roger equivalent, played by a subbing James Franciscus. Whilst not as a bad as often painted, it was certainly cheap and tacky and represented a formula milked dry, huge success supplanted by try-hard failure. Which is perhaps, the oldest morality play of all, at least in show business.

Standard
Commentary

Paul Newman: A Talent to Savour

.

PaulNewmanATTS-Hustler

By Roderick Heath

Paul Newman’s compellingly hewn face that first commanded attention—the Romanesque nobility of jaw line and nose punctuated by blue eyes sharp enough to cut paper. Then his voice—sturdy, clean, rich, yet utterly compact in its character, resonant of the American Midwest in its most pleasant contexts, its most manifold gifts. Yet he dodged being identified as a mere beefcake idol, a perception that his sometime costar Robert Redford never quite defeated. No, his eyes communicated a restless awareness too bold in a contemplation of the fault-lines in the world’s fabric, his physique pitched with an insouciance that refused to be merely ogled. He sharpened his mind, his will, his body to a fine edge of commitment and was at his greatest playing men with a raging will to win over something, anything, even if it was purely illusory. He played many men who felt their souls spilling out of their flesh despite all their efforts to keep it hidden within. He began on stage and in television, and then hit the movies with a monumental embarrassment—the garish 1954 Biblical epic The Silver Chalice, in which only Jack Palance’s Simon Magus made its torpid shenanigans even briefly intriguing. Newman had broken into cinema at nearly 30 years of age in an attempt to make him the next Victor Mature or Robert Taylor—a pitiable fate if ever there was one. But he was, of course, a New York method actor.

PaulNewmanATTS-SUTLikesMe

Like his forebearers Clift and Brando and his contemporary Dean, Newman exemplified a new concept of screen actor—gritty, tough, often perverse, slightly dangerous, no longer centred by clichéd machismo, febrile in their manly poses. Unlike these actors, he never seemed to mind the business of being a movie star. He could play a part for laughs, take a pay-cheque role and still turn in a solid job, without guilt eating at his soul. Also unlike them, he didn’t make as quick or big a splash, but he lasted far longer, in far better shape. His view? He told Rolling Stone in 1973, “A plus about making pictures is that you learn something new on every one, whether it’s a good one or a stinker.” The decline of the studios in the mid 1950s created an atmosphere unkind to many emerging movie stars. Some, like James Garner and Clint Eastwood, had to retreat into television, or, like Anne Bancroft, run back to the stage until times improved. So, too, did Newman, for a short spell, but he returned to movies two years after his disastrous debut in Robert Wise’s Rocky Graziano biopic, Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film to which Sylvester Stallone owes royalties. Newman went to town in the role of street-hardened delinquent who grows into a boxing champeen, all the while never losing his gauche, somehow innocent charm. The film sported spectacular acting from Newman—probably too spectacular. His Graziano is a more athletic version of Ernest Borgnine’s Marty—the previous year’s Noo-Yawk Italian hero—a sentimental rendering of a type combined with dashes of Jimmy Cagney’s neighborhood toughs. Rocky rises to become a champion, but remains buffeted by forces beyond his comprehension.

PaulNewmanATTS-LeftHandedGun

Newman moved on to The Long, Hot Summer (1958), a corny Faulkner adaptation. During the course of shooting, he cemented his attraction to costar and final wife Joanne Woodward; when they draw together into each other’s arms at the end, it has the unmistakable ring of the truly pleased. Newman then appeared in Arthur Penn’s debut, The Left Handed Gun. As in Summer, he’s a shiftless outsider without trust or favor, driven to gnaw frantically but hopelessly at the edges of the firmly ensconced power of ignoble men. His Billy the Kid expanded on original writer Gore Vidal’s concept as a range-riding edition of a contemporary juvie-hall escapee, dogged by his Eastern accent, his wide eyes glittering with problem-child attitude, his body contorting with oversized anger, avenging his murdered paternal substitute with a righteous fury that seems to have no checks, no mercy. If Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) began the age of the adult Western, Penn’s film was the first post-Western, forerunners of his own works like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Missouri Breaks (1976). Billy is like a tantrum-possessed child, and yet also a cold, precise-minded killer. He erodes the life energy of the people close to him, their fidelity, their moral standards, and is finally gnawed to virtual suicide by his realisation of what he’s achieved, or rather failed to achieve. In the most vital scene, he confronts a shifty marshal during a celebration over amnesty for veterans of a range war; on the pretext of inspecting the man’s gun, he removes the bullets, and then has his grim expectations confirmed when the marshal draws on him. He drops the bullets on the floor with a glowing-eyed wrath that seems almost like a possession.

PaulNewmanATTS-CatTinRoof

In his first few defining parts, Newman acts with his whole body—twitchy, mumbly, trying too hard to be the next Brando. It’s stagy, almost a satire on his master’s mannerisms, and works against Newman’s fundamental energy. Working at the tail end of Hollywood’s first, brief obsession with rebellious young men, Newman would retain his fascination for rebels, but he would also take it his rebels into slightly different territory. Playing Brick Pollitt in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Newman was suddenly all there, giving his first truly great performance. Brooks might claim some responsibility for this, as he also drew out some of Elizabeth Taylor’s least mannered acting. Newman’s Brick is a less showy creation than his earlier angry young men, and though a character as equally tortured as Rocky or the Kid, Newman now displays his soul through eyes raw and bold, trying frantically to express what the world wants him to hold in—the desperate love he had for his best friend, and the stark terror he’s facing of being unable to transfer that love to his wife. Though playing a man still cast in the dependent role of son and heir to Burl Ives’ Big Daddy, Newman here nonetheless actually plays a man and not an overgrown boy. Newman soon became sublime at playing characters for whom the men they have become and the men they should be, are a terrible distance apart. Brick is self-loathing and self-pitying, but he’s also in the process of working up the will to become a self-directing adult—something the gauche, likeable, boyish Rocky and the borderline psychotic, self-destructive Billy never did.

PaulNewmanATTS-ParisBlues

Newman revealed a rare willingness, for a straight leading man of the time, to expose his nerves for the sake of Tennessee Williams’ complex, lacerating studies in homoerotic aesthetics. Yet it suited Newman’s ironic perspective on his own good looks to play Williams’ fetishised male beauties in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). In the latter film, he plays a gigolo in the process of being ground up by the unbounded, vampiric appetites of tyrannical patriarchy, female vanity, and a society obsessed with beauty and youth. Antihero was a word used often with abandon at the time. Sometimes it meant characters who did heroic things whilst not fitting heroic moulds, or men who occupied the centre of a narrative, but who actively refused to do anything heroic. Newman, Brando, Clift, Douglas, Lancaster, Mitchum, Eastwood all came to specialise in this brute species. Sometimes they could be out-and-out bastards. After the stilted start of The Long, Hot Summer, Newman reunited with Martin Ritt for two terrific films where he played unlikable, even swinish men. In Paris Blues (1961), he delivered Ram Bowen, a jazz trombonist and hard-sell womaniser temporarily tamed by a school teacher played by Woodward. He’s a bellyaching, often boorish jerk with a compensating factor—he’s riven with anxiety over his artistic worth and eventually chooses to commit himself to growth, rather than retreating into a romantic bubble. The number of taboos the film shatters is startling, all the more so for being blithe about it: Newman and Woodwared leap into a sexual affair, though only after Newman has made clear his preference for Diahann Carroll. As a portrait of the artist as a young prick, it’s formidably accurate.

The other film for Ritt, Hud (1963), was an adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel—a brutal assault on the Western by the modern world, a realm of beaten-up pick-up trucks, fragile-nerved waitresses, dust-swept diners, and the caddish Hud himself. Brandon DeWilde, bland but cleverly cast nonetheless as Hud’s younger foil, reverses the finale of Shane; DeWilde walks away from Newman, refusing to bow to his shitkicker nihilism. Paris Blues was well overshadowed by another Newman film that came out the same year—Robert Rossen’s The Hustler. This film represents his greatest part, greatest performance, and greatest film—a near miracle in fusing melodrama with a kind of bitter poetic realism to which modern American cinema owes a great deal, whilst also tipping its hat to the literary traditions of Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, James Jones. Fast Eddie Felson particularly resembles one of Jones’ philosopher everymen. Like Brick, Eddie is defined by clashing qualities of youthful athleticism, great physical talent and beauty, but also a deeply ingrained self-loathing, a violent internal struggle with his own contradictions and the world’s evil. As with Brick, Eddie is consumed by a clash between his own need for love, stability, and fulfillment on his own terms and the identification of these desires as weakness by a rapacious, viciously macho culture that pays off users and vampires with far more readiness than warrior-poets like Eddie. Like some of Brando’s heroes, he has strong masochistic tones; unlike many of Brando’s, he is, at the core, articulate. Brando preferred figures who can only tangentially explore themselves; Newman liked to play men who know themselves and don’t always like what they know.

The film’s core scene, Eddie’s explanation of his delight in pool to girlfriend Piper Laurie, was rewritten at Newman’s request. He told Rolling Stone that “The way it was originally written, I thought it was a nothing scene—it just wasn’t there, it had no sense of specialness. So I told Rossen he ought to somehow liken what Eddie does to what anybody who’s performing something sensational is doing—a ball player, say, or some guy who laid 477 bricks in one day.” Eddie’s esoteric skill thus could be alchemised to represent talent in all its forms, the drive to use it, but also to respect it, and the clash that often occurs between these two urges. Eddie is sufficiently hardened in the end to win in the terms of the culture about him, but is finally disgusted by it. Rather than take the laurels of that culture, he insists on a victory purely on his own terms. In this period, Newman went from strength to strength, and even initiated his own superstition regarding playing in films with ‘h’ in the title. The Left Handed Gun. Hondo. Hud. Harper. Hombre. Cool Hand Luke. They all seemed to stand for an omnipresent Him—both Newman, but also the type of fractured males he was drawn to play.

PaulNewmanATTS-Exodus

In Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), he played one of his most effective heroic rebels, a rare figure with a specific cause, culture, and identity to fight for—Ari Ben Canaan, former British soldier turned Zionist warrior for the Hagenah organisation. It was also the only film in which half-Jewish Newman ever played his native ethnicity, and once more made slyly clever use of his appearance as anything but the classic caricature of a Jew. In his confrontation with bigoted British officer (the atrocious Peter Lawford), after the officer has sworn he can tell a Jew by looking in his eye, Canaan invites him to do just this. Newman inhabits Ari with a hardened purpose that stops short of inhuman fanaticism. His attempts to retain a conscious grip on his humanity whilst still keeping an iron-willed refusal to be bossed around for political expedience force him to maintain a cold rigour, as he tries consciously not to indulge himself looking at shiksa Eva Marie Saint whilst conducting his war of nerves with the authorities. In a pointed finale, he leads his soldiers off into eternal battle – not merely a nod to the ever-fractious Israeli status, but to the concept of freedom itself requiring eternal vigilance.

PaulNewmanATTS-ThePrize

One of Newman’s most perfectly relaxed and entertaining performances came in Mark Robson’s Hitchockian romp The Prize (1963), in which he played party animal Andrew Craig, the youngest-ever Nobel laureate in literature whose challenging early works were commercial flops, forcing him to write trash and drink much. The situation is hilarious and rich enough to be the film’s subject, but Newman’s Craig is soon drawn into the usual shadowy conspiracies, contending with a vividly ironic, yet rather dogged heroism, and some terrifically sexy byplay with Elke Sommer and Diane Baker. This film was certainly preferable to the actual Hitchcock film he made at this time, Torn Curtain (1966), possibly the nadir of both men’s career. Two of Newman’s most popular and facetious parts came in the late ‘60s. In Cool Hand Luke (1967), he virtually embodied the paranoid, clumsily directed spirit of a nonconformist age, dabbling at the edges of society and seeing his paltry attempts at protest against an unfeeling society punished with force. This punishment is, of course, what he wants: this brand of outsider wants the gloves taken off, the mask removed,from the silent war between outsider and insider. Luke is broken finally, by the chain gang authorities, and Newman’s usually upright frame reduced to a shambling, kowtowing monkey before he regains his last surge of bravery. But he only earns a squalid death.

PaulNewmanATTS-ButchSundance

If Cool Hand Luke was a rather morbid, exaggerated portrait of regional, period-American fascism linked by underground wires to the counterculture anxiety, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) represented its transformation into commercialised froth. Designed as a pseudo-satirical deconstruction, it ended up more as a hokey flower-child music video with the customary downbeat finale for false gravitas. It did, however, unite him with Redford as the defining buddy-movie duo, a complementary twining of talents. Redford had a suppleness that Newman had never approached, and Newman had a gravity Redford couldn’t quite grasp. If the period from 1958 to 1969 had been a powerhouse era for Newman, the early ‘70s saw his golden touch decline briefly. His collaborations now with John Huston (in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and The Mackintosh Man, 1973) and Terence Malick (writer of Pocket Money, 1972) produced little fanfare.

PaulNewmanATTS-ToweringInferno

In 1974, he took a role in Irwin Allen disaster epic, The Towering Inferno, top-billed alongside Steve McQueen, who had been trying to chase down Newman since debuting in a small role in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Newman played Doug Robarts, the architect of the ill-fated Glass Tower, tallest building in the world, studding the San Francisco skyline like a contemporary Babel. Newman’s design is good—it’s the corner-cutting construction that results in disaster, prompting Newman’s desperate efforts to prevent a holocaust of aging movie idols and cheesy TV stars. As some purely mercenary parts can manage, it exemplifies Newman’s on-screen persona: introduced as a triumphant knight of vision, indulging in an afternoon delight with girlfriend Faye Dunaway, he soon finds his success is quite literally built on rot—the low-grade wiring that Richard Chamberlain’s corrupt contractor has filled the tower. Newman sheds his golden allure in favour of angry self-recrimination: “What do they call it when you kill people?” he demands of the Tower’s owner (William Holden). Later in the film, he finds another perfectly complementary male partner in McQueen as they join forces to save the day. Regarding the smoking ruin in the end, Newman muses, “Maybe they should leave it the way it is – kind of monument to all the bullshit in the world,” A more salutary line he rarely uttered.

Newman was aging now. Always a bit older than her looked, his golden hair was now flecked with grey, his face stiffening, his voice huskier. His persona altered again—now his men became old hands, urgently trying to make one last score before inevitable degeneration. As with Martin Ritt, his second two films with George Roy Hill achieved a kind of perfection on a rough sketch: The Sting (1973), a floridly entertaining Depression lark—a contradiction in terms integral to the film’s drama—that saw him play “the great Henry Gondorff,” as he’s contemptuously described when discovered by Redford’s Johnny Hooker sleeping off a drunk in a bathtub. The film makes us cheer a mob of criminals without hesitation as they take on a far worse one, as well as a world that rewards voracious cruelty and greed while leaving everyone else scrabbling in the filth. The third film was Slap Shot (1977), one of the few authentic comic classics of the ‘70s, a shot of neat bourbon amidst the low-cal soft drinks in the modern comedy pantheon. Written by Nancy Dowd, it captured like virtually no film before or since the peculiar, individualist insanity of a medium-sized, working-class town—the tomboy girls, the foul-mouthed, brutal sensibility that can disguise a rich tolerance and multiplicity of lifestyles.

PaulNewmanATTS-SlapShot

Slap Shot possibly had as much or more impact on modern American indie film as films like The Hustler or Hud. It’s hard to imagine a The Full Monty, a Friday Night Lights, or any of Will Ferrell’s straining attempts to reproduce blue-collar comic value without it. Newman’s Reg Dunlop was the last of his heroes of great physical prowess, now waning, caught inelegantly between the young stud he was and the sad old guy he sees himself becoming. Dowd’s script is still utterly contemporary in many ways, taking aim at the insecurities of a town seeing traditional values disintegrate and papering over sexual anxieties and false social rituals by concentrating on bloodlust. Dunlop is defined by his impatient bark, his willingness to ignore fragile civility and go for the jugular, when the moment is right, as in the film’s most hilariously gauche sequences. After he listens with bewildered equanimity to a girlfriend’s account of a lesbian orgy with fellow housewives, he will, of course, rock right up to her husband, captain of an enemy team, and use this knowledge to provoke a fight, or later, when he cuts down the snooty, dismissive owner of the team. His approach might not be sensitive, but it still seems like some of Newman’s most purely heroic moments in its the refusal to allow a retreat into empty politeness or evasion in heartland America.

PaulNewmanATTS-Verdict

Entering the 1980s, having gone entirely white-haired, Newman did not actually lose his looks so much as ease into them at last. Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982) saw him in one of his finest elder parts, a pathos-inducing ambulance chaser who seems to have arrived at middle age having barely registered the period since leaving college as anything more substantial than one long advertorial. His rediscovery of moral impetus, and the shocks he receives along the way, are presented with uncommon rigour both by Newman and Lumet. Extending the reach of courtroom drama—doing much the same thing for the genre that Coppola did for the gangster film—they invested the film with a careful visual and rhythmic shading that gave it rare dramatic depth. Newman finally gained a proper Oscar in 1986 for The Color of Money, his reprise of the part of Eddie Felson which I’ve written about in-depth before. It wasn’t equal to his best performances, but neater star turns are still hard to come by. After The Color of Money, Newman did not go into decline exactly, but almost inevitably, his starring roles became fewer, and the films in which he did appear were box office misfires, like the eminently forgettable Blaze (1989) and Message in a Bottle (1999). Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) was a sticky, not exactly truthful account of the Manhattan Project, though Newman did good work in projecting the steely, unpersuadable Gen. Groves.

Two of his last films of prominent billing were Nobody’s Fool (1994), which gained him an Oscar nomination in competition with the likes of John Travolta and Morgan Freeman, and Twilight (1998). Both films were directed by Robert Benton, an authority of middle-brow cinema. The Road to Perdition (2002) presented him in full Grand Old Actor mode working in an inferior project, a state in which one often finds former greats. It’s a dangerous area, for so often what looks like just another part can be an accidental career-capper. What can we say of Newman here? He presents a performance remarkable in its restraint, his blue eyes now seeming as grey as his hair, frigid with a lifetime of contemplating, not backing away, from moral terror or harsh necessity. Surveying his career, there many more parts and films worthy of looking at in depth: The Rack; The Young Philadelphians; Winning; WUSA; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; Buffalo Bill and the Indians; Quintet; Fort Apache, the Bronx; Absence of Malice; Mr. and Mrs. Bridge; The Hudsucker Proxy. And his films as a director, like Rachel Rachel and Sometimes a Great Notion, his badly underappreciated adaptation of Ken Kesey’s first novel, betray a careful, mood-aware craftsman at least as talented as Eastwood behind the lens. For once, surveying Newman’s career is not a task of saving gems from a disordered career, or regretting wasted talent, but of accounting talent savoured virtually to the last drop.

Standard
1980s, Auteurs, Drama, Sports

The Color of Money (1986)

.

colorofmoney01

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

As Scorsese himself put in the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his kind of pre-indie film artist seemed to have no place once the era of the blockbuster began. Through the early ’80s Scorsese’s oeuvre was still interesting and provocative. The sweat-inducing pop-culture satire of The King of Comedy (1983), along with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, could be said to have closed the curtain on an unofficial trilogy studying the intersection of the celebrity media and the sociopath. After Hours (1985), a picaresque, absurdist comedy featuring Griffin Dunne as an office drone whose momentary lapse into frightened anger at loopy date Rosanna Arquette is punished to the point where he seems to have an entire city out to get him. The film gained Scorsese a Best Director award at Cannes. Yet The King of Comedy, though sickly brilliant (and brilliantly sick), is borderline unwatchable in its sourness, and After Hours is formless and cartoonish, inferior to the Elizabeth Shue vehicle Adventures in Babysitting (1987), the Disney rendition of the same idea. Satire was not Scorsese’s thing, and his eruptive visual sensibilities had been tamed almost to flatness.

colorofmoney02

The Color of Money was both a ticket for Scorsese back to the mainstream and a return to his cinematic roots in the pungent milieu of bars, pool halls, and wiseguys (and girls). It also presented a daunting challenge in that it was a star vehicle for Paul Newman returning to his greatest role in one of the great American movies – one that had paved the way for filmmakers like Scorsese – Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). In Rossen’s film, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, eponymous hero “Fast” Eddie Felson (Newman) challenged the world’s greatest pool player, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) twice. He lost the first contest because of his emotional volatility. He won the second when all that had been scoured from his body, in the intermediate process of romancing and losing to suicide the self-destructive, bottle-abusing bohemian girl Sarah (Piper Laurie). Both the suicide and the rematch were thanks to Eddie’s sharklike backer Burt (George C. Scott). Finally, Eddie, unlike, it is suggested, Fats, refuses to sell himself out to this nocturnal life, walking out on Burt and the life with a bag full of cash, to Burt’s jocular threat, “Don’t play anymore big-time pool halls!”

colorofmoney03

Walter Tevis’ follow-up novel The Color of Money touched the expected bases, such as reuniting Eddie with Fats. For their adaptation, Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price (a fine author whose The Wanderers had been lovingly filmed by Phillip Kaufman) reduced references to the first film to a cryptic line from Eddie, when he recalls that “somebody retired me,” in explaining why his titanic skills on the green felt have gone to seed. We rediscover Eddie smooth-talking his girlfriend, bar owner Janelle (Helen Shaver), but being distracted by the sounds of the pool tables in her joint, most specifically the “sledgehammer break” of Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), who is kicking the ass of Julian (John Turturro), Eddie’s own stakehorse. Eddie is now a wealthy liquor salesman, but he longs for the adrenalin-factory that is high-stakes pool playing, betting, and hustling.

colorofmoney04

Times, of course, have changed. Nine-ball is now the game of choice, and the young players are all cokehead punks rather than boozy sharpies. Vincent is an horrendously talented player who prefers his abilities at computer games and doesn’t give a fig – yet – for money. His femme fatale girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), met Vincent at the police station, when she drove getaway for her previous boyfriend who robbed Vincent’s parents’ house. She shows her necklace to Eddie; it belonged to Eddie’s mother’s, and Vincent remarks that his mother “has one just like it…Vincent’s sweet – Vincent’s real sweet.” Therese mutters, adoringly awed by this royal schmuck. Vincent works as a quick-talking toy salesman in a hideous suburban retail barn. Eddie, carefully soaking in these details, begins with equal care to manipulate them. His master plan is to take Vincent on a full tour of East Coast pool halls to teach him the arts of hustling in a carefully plotted campaign to win a major nine-ball championship in Atlantic City.

colorofmoney05

Eddie must extricate Vincent from his work-a-day life. He establishes his grandee abilities in a memorable dinner table scene in which he explains that Vincent has, in his gauche, the overeager style a “natural character…you’re an incredible flake,” that is, a perfect persona for entrapping the greedy, self-impressed types who engage in the almost mystically charged macho challenge of the pool hall. Eddie appeals to Vincent’s enormous ego and pride by giving him a Balabushka cue, the most perfect instrument of pool. “John Wayne carries ’em like this!” Vincent gushes. Eddie also works on Vincent’s insecurity over keeping Carmen with his low wage (“She don’t dig the allure of this place,” Eddie assures Vincent, regarding the toy store), a game Carmen eagerly buys into in. “We got a racehorse here! You keep him happy, I teach him how to run,” Eddie urges, and the pair tie Vincent’s ego in knots until he signs on.

colorofmoney06

Eddie is leaving behind frayed relationships with an aggrieved Julian, and with Janelle, fuming at his almost adolescent inability to commit. Vincent and Eddie’s relationship evolves, part father-son, part jealous admiration on Eddie’s part (“Like watching movies of myself thirty years ago”). Vincent is driven by a young egotist’s need to establish dominance, which leads him to brazen shows of skill and spectacles, all of which cuts against the grain of Eddie’s efforts to teach how to be an actual hustling champion, the guy who makes the big scores by sucking in money players. Returning to Chalkie’s, a pool hall run by its one-time sweeper Orvis (Bill Cobb), Vincent’s insistence on caning Eddie in a warm-up match and then the local quickdraw Moselle (Bruce A. Young) costs him the chance to play the desired opponent, a numbers chieftain who always plays with $5,000 in pocket. Eddie walks away cringing and berates Vincent later. Asking how much he won, Vincent announces “One-fifty!” Eddie retorts; “You walk into a shoe store with a hundred and fifty bucks, you come out with one shoe!”

colorofmoney07

Carmen, trying to manipulate Eddie, teasingly flashes him. Eddie irritably puts paid to this when he drags her in the bathroom: “I like it in the shower!” “Child care!” is how he describes handling this pair. Eddie teaches Vincent a vivid lesson of the harsher aspects of the game. When Vincent won’t bring himself to beat a man whose esophagus has been removed, Eddie tells him to lose on purpose and then leaves him without any money to pay up just long enough for Vincent to be roughed up. When Eddie returns to rescue him, pretending to be his angry father, he’s made his point: nice guys finish last. Slowly, Vincent learns to temper his showiness with Eddie and Carmen’s carrot-and-stick approach, and in a marathon match with the fatuous reigning champ Grady Seasons (Keith McCready), after a sexual threat from Carmen, dumps the game, setting up the perfect scenario for Atlantic City.

colorofmoney08

Eddie, on a high, takes the Balabushka out for a spin, and gets caught in a match with a weird young player, Amos (Forest Whitaker, positively screaming “star potential”), who eventually proves to be a sublime hustler. It’s a humiliation Eddie finds crippling. He tells Vincent and Carmen to do the rest by themselves, giving them the stake money, a rejection to which Vincent reacts with howling filial rage, tearing a rail off the wall and throwing the cue after Eddie. Eddie determinedly sets about rehabilitating himself as a player, first acknowledging his weakened eyes by getting a pair of bifocals and then retracing steps, refining his style, and taking down all of Vincent’s opponents and a few more (including a noxious punk, played by Iggy Pop, the epitome of everything Eddie’s at war with), before arriving at the championship. Scorsese’s merciless eye for kultur evokes the town’s faux-classy aura with such touches as presenting the pool hall using a soaring crane shot and a blast of organ music, suggesting it’s a cathedral for spivs, and highlighting a lacquer-haired singer killing the exoticism of “The Girl From Ipanema.”

colorofmoney09

When Eddie encounters Vincent and Carmen again, she is goggle-eyed in stating “Vincent’s changed!” Vincent is now hard, critical, and voracious. Instead of being tempered by Eddie’s lessons, he’s absorbed them into his narcissism. In the championship, Eddie destroys Julian, and Vincent breaks Seasons, bringing them to a quarter-final face-off. But Vincent has devised an intricate revenge on Eddie; he deliberately loses to him. Eddie is, of course, overjoyed, and reunites happily with Janelle in his hotel room, until Vincent and Carmen knock on the door, presenting him with a cut of the money they won betting on him. Janelle dismisses Vincent: “Little prick!” But Eddie stews until he uses Carmen to bait Vincent into a private rematch. “All I want is your best game,” Eddie requests. “You can’t handle my best!” Vincent spits. But he relents. “If I don’t beat you this time I’ll beat you next month,” Eddie says assuredly, and declares, before the film’s concluding freeze frame; “Hey, I’m back!”

colorofmoney10

AMPAS agreed, and awarded Newman his belated Oscar for the role; in ’61, Newman had bewilderingly lost to Maximillian Schell’s excellent, but more limited supporting turn in Judgment at Nuremberg. Advised by Scorsese to play the film’s comic scenes as if they weren’t comic, Newman delivers an often sublimely sketched performance as a man who seems light years removed from his youthful, volatile, suffering self, but still has him lurking inside, along with a large dash of Burt’s master manipulator. Eddie is still fighting his worst side, trying to age gracefully without losing his zeal – he’s still shy of commitment and complacency. But Newman occasionally hits beats too heavily, like his berating of Mastrantonio in the bathroom scene, which degenerates to pure Oscar-clip gravitas.

colorofmoney11

The film contains perhaps Tom Cruise’s best performance. Scorsese uses Cruise’s trademark persona – blithe embodiment of a yuppie-masculine ideal of unleashed hubris, athletic grace, and emotional vacuity – and drags it down quite a few social levels. Vincent is as antiseptically charming a wunderkind as his Top Gun character. Vincent partly hankers to go to West Point (he believes his video games will, in a few years, make him a qualified push-button warrior), but soon heartily embraces the vicious, venal qualities of a great pool shark. Mastrantonio keeps pace with both men in her flinty, charged performance, and she masterfully manages the bitterly amusing shift of her character from dominant witch to terminally confused backseat driver.

colorofmoney12

Superbly scripted by Price, with endlessly quotable dialogue, The Color of Money is nowhere near as dramatically compressed as The Hustler or Scorsese’s best works, but it is one of his most purely watchable films. It is also in a different mould and predicts in some ways Scorsese’s next film, The Last Temptation of Christ, in that it is a drama of moral and personal regeneration, countering the tragic arc of The Hustler. It also charts, as precisely as other Scorsese works, like The King of Comedy without that film’s contempt for its characters, the often painful things men and women do to each other in situations charged with desire and ambition.

colorofmoney13

Scorsese slyly extends Taxi Driver’s motif of the iconography of the motion picture Wild West extending into and defining modern, unheroic existence. The pool artistes of The Color of Money pitch themselves as gunslingers – Moselle even wears a cowboy hat – trying to best each other. Eddie, as the aging gentleman of the game trying to leave behind a troubled past recalls one of Peckinpah’s aging heroes, or Gary Cooper’s Man of the West (1958), a man for whom the seediness of his past and the sorrows of the milieu he dwells in has a humanizing, sensitizing effect. In this way, Scorsese links together strands that swirled through his early films and through the American life he charted. The Balabushka cue, swapped back and forth by Felson and Vincent, is an Excalibur, loaded with suggestions of male sexual potency, as surrogate father and son jockey to see who is the most worthy to wield it. Eddie eventually retains the stick, and, in a hilarious touch, Janelle presents him with its vaginal counterpart, a cue chalk.

colorofmoney14

The film, Scorsese’s second with German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who paints the film with a gauzy, smoky appeal, was a real stylistic reinvigoration. The soundtrack is a careful layering of punchy original music by Robbie Robertson and rock classics, some re-recorded specifically for the film to blend them precisely into the film’s texture. In between the crisply caught evocations of seamy urban America, the pool sequences are dazzlingly filmed. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing makes abstract whirlpools out of the skittling balls. When Vincent beats Moselle, the camera rapidly circles the table as Cruise strikes samurai poses and dances to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” between performing shots of supreme legerdemain – a perfect fusion of Scorsese and Cruise’s show-off voltage.

Standard